by Allan Greene
(Read part one of this series here)
Arvo Pärt (pronounced “pair-t”), the contemporary classical composer, insists, as recorded in Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Enzo Restagno, et al., 2010), that in contrast to whatever anybody else takes away from his highly spiritual compositions, he is driven by technical goals; and that the “system” that he devised after 1976, which he calls Tintinnabuli, is meant to prove that “1+1=1”, that in the End is the Beginning. In other words, Happiness is a Cosmic Blanket.
His route to happiness took him through his own extended breakdown, between 1968 and 1976, a span during which he had largely stopped composing. He had already changed direction twice in his short career.
Born in 1935 into an independent Estonia at the fringes of Western culture, he grew up as the Soviets took effective control during the war and then complete control afterward. The Estonian musical community had been pretty much ignored by the powerful and reactionary Composers Union in Moscow. Pärt, however, was a seeker, not an entertainer, and when visiting artists performed and brought recordings and scores of what was happening in the West (Boulez, Stockhausen, Henze, Dallapicola, Berio, and above all Webern), he found the path he was seeking. His early popular success (1960) with a student composition, Nekrolog, which was one of the first twelve-tone pieces written inside the Soviet Union, drew “relentless criticism from elevated cultural circles” (Restagno, p. 14) because it allowed a corrupt Western aesthetic to penetrate the Iron Curtain. A few years later he was trying heterogeneous pieces (Collage on B-A-C-H, 1964) which he described as:
A sort of transplantation: if you have the feeling you don’t have a skin of your own,you try to take strips from skin all around you and apply them to yourself. In time these strips change, and turn into a new skin. I didn’t know where this experiment with the Collages would lead me, but in any case I had the impression I was carrying a living organism in my hands, a living substance, such as I had yet not found in twelve-tone music… But one cannot go on forever with the method transplantation. (Restagno, 17)
He was in a record store (remember those places?) and overheard a short Gregorian chant, just a few seconds of it, as he recalls (ibid., 18).
In it I discovered a world that I didn’t know, a world without harmony, without meter, without timbre, without instrumentation, without anything. At this moment it became clear to me which direction I had to follow, and a long journey began in my unconscious mind. (ibid., 18)
Pärt continued to experiment in the mid-Sixties with works juxtaposing radically different styles, like his Second Symphony (1966), which after the most frightening clashes of sound masses introduces a note-for-note symphonic quotation from Tchaikovsky twice in the final movement.
He gave up on twelve-tone, serial, musique concrète, even Webern-like miniatures, after that, having decided that mid-Twentieth Century New Music was a carrier of “the germ of conflict”. The conflicts had lost their power and meaning for him.
One could say I had come to terms with myself and with God – and in so doing, all personal demands on the world receded into the background. (ibid., 22)
I have come to recognize that it not my duty to struggle with the world, nor to condemn this or that, but first and foremost to know myself, since every conflict begins in ourselves. (ibid.)
And so I set off in search of new sounds. In this way, the path itself becomes a source of inspiration. The path no longer runs outwards from us, but inwards, to the core from which everything springs. That is what all my actions have come to mean: building and not destroying. (ibid.)
In 1968 he composed a Credo (Summa), a work for piano, orchestra and chorus with Latin texts from the Gospels. The Composers Union caught up with him, and soon he was receiving coded threats that investigations were going on at the highest level. This combination of twelve-tone language and Jesus’ suffering proved too provocative for the authorities.
After this I was interrogated several times, and the interrogators repeated the same question over and over again: “What political aim are you pursuing in this work?” (ibid.)
His wife Nora added, “And they added, ‘And do not forget that this work must never again be performed, and you must not offer it to anyone else’”. (ibid.)
Understandably, the confluence of all these doubts and pressures led to his choice to cease composing. This was his nervous breakdown moment, when nothing which had worked for him in the past worked now. [Read more…]